Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Scent Junkie

Those of you who know me well will know I'm a bit of a perfume junkie. It's a habit whose origins lie in the gift of tiny bottle of Eau de Cologne from my grandmother when I was eight or nine and a little later, the remains of a bottle of Tweed - I was hooked. It's not just the scents but the ornate packing; I will own up to acquiring bottles just for their shape and not primarily for their contents! Chanel 19 is my favourite daytime scent with Opium for special occasions.

The Middle East is where the art of perfumery was born and here in Bahrain it's a perfume heaven. Every shopping mall has stalls and more than a few shops dedicated to the art, enticing passers-by with burning frankincense. Each offers a dazzling array of the most fabulously decorated bottles of every shape and size. Gold, silver and pewter clad glass phials decorated with beads or ornate pictures, they beg to be handled. Initially I viewed them all from a distance sure that these wonderful objects would be beyond my budget. But wafts of entrancing smells caught in passing from both women and men tempted me to explore. And I soon found that some of the most exotic heavy scents which are my preference are quite affordable, considerably cheaper than my Chanel addiction. So my bottle collection has expanded just a little.

The girls (and occasional man) running the stalls are always quite approachable and often knowledgable so I can happily while away 30 minutes discussing ingredients, smells and bottles. My latest rediscovery is of solid perfumes. I remember these from my teenage years as free gifts in tacky plastic containers given away with magazines like Jackie but useful to shove in a pocket. At the weekend Kevin indulged me with a little compact shaped like a basket of flowers containing a solid fragrance from one of the stalls in Dana Mall after I'd spent some time exploring the various scents; rose, oud, strawberry, "baby" (a lovely waft of newly bathed and powdered skin), patchouli and more. The enamelled compact could double as a paperweight so rather heavy for my pocket but delightful to handle with a small pink flower dangling off one side and lid that rotates to reveal a delicious sweet but heavy, patchouli and chocolate concoction. I smell like a box of chocolates!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Hot Weather, Increased Demand For Electricity

It's apparently been unseasonably hot for the time of year. I say apparently because over years of travelling in various countries I have become quite sceptical of local so-called weather knowledge which is often used to explain any inconvenient weather as "unsual for the time of year". However, according to a report in today's Bahrain Tribune, the cause of our current spell of high temperatures and light winds is a weaker than normal monsoon weather system over Northern India and Pakistan.In turn this has meant that the usual Shamal wind from the north west is not blowing to provide a cooling touch over the region. Indeed according to this article it has been reversed, bringing hot winds from the interior of the Arabian Pennisula. The impact on the Gulf has been that Kuwait is experiencing the highest June temperatures since 1957 and here in Bahrain with daytime temperatures in the lower forties (several degrees higher than June averages) it has led to larger than normal numbers of hospital admissions of workers suffering from heat exhaustion.

This last weekend has again been very hot with very little breeze so late Saturday afternoon we took refuge in the rooftop pool. Soon after the sun passes its zenith, the north facing, seaward side of the roof becomes shaded by the higher part of the building containing the lift shafts and changing rooms. With a light sea breeze the pool area becomes a relatively cooler, shady oasis. Only our next door neighbours were up there lazing in the jacuzzi built into one end of the pool. Between cooling dips hubby and I lay on the sun loungers chatting or reading magazines we'd recently brought back from the UK (magazine prices are almost double here).

After a couple of hours relaxation we decided to head downstairs for a quick shower before making a start on supper. However in the lobby we met another resident heading for the pool who advised that the roof terrace would be cooler as the power was off and probably wouldn't be back for an hour or so. Welcome to summer in the Middle East! As temperatures rise so does the use of air conditioning. In traditional Bahraini houses wind towers were used to keep the interior cool but with the advent of electricity, air conditioning systems are ubiquitous.

With all the residential and office building going on in the Kingdom, power supplies have struggled to keep up. A new electricity and water desalination plant at Al Dur down the coast is due to start contributing a small amount of electricity later this month but won't come fully online until next year. Meanwhile in last weeks GDN I spotted the announcement of the inauguration of the Umm Al Naasan power station which the Government run Electricity and Water Authority  (EWA) say will reduce power cuts by 20% this summer.

To protect supplies the EWA  has a system of cutting power for an hour across swathes of the country in rotation. Juffair's turn was 17:30 Saturday night. According to ex-pats who've been here a while the cuts usually occur during the day to reduce complaints. As our flat faces north once the sun starts to set, it gets rather gloomy without the lights on so we stayed put, swiming and chatting to other residents until the pool pump restarted just over an hour later.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Health Care at Your Service

I needed to see a GP but here in Bahrain we don't have one, just a little plastic card provided by hubby's employers declaring we are members of a Saudi-based medical insurance scheme. A quick call to a colleague to check on procedure and we headed off to the Bahrain Specialist Hospital (BSH) just a couple of blocks away. Its the low building top centre of the photo.

The splendid wide lobby has a large reception desk to the right and several long UK-NHS style signs listing lots of different departments in various directions (but none of the lines-on-the-floor guides that I've seen in some UK hospitals). GP services are part of Accident and Emergency so we headed for Admissions there where one of the identical-suited male clerks asked if we "had a file". On seeing our shaking our heads, forms were swapped for our cards and passports (Hubby decided to "open a file" here too). Once the paperwork was complete we were directed to the waiting room. Everywhere looked like any NHS building except for the paucity of staff and bustle.

A tiny, smiling nurse showed me through to a cubicle in a side room, took my blood pressure, temperature and heart rate whilst quickly gathering the reason for my visit. The doctor then appeared and examined me, decided a blood sample and throat swabs were needed for testing. Nurse returned and duely took the samples. Then much to our suprise said that the results would be ready in an hour! Definitely not in the UK then... we went off for a coffee.

Now the BSH building was originally built as a hotel but according to local lore the developers had not realised they needed to negotiate for access to the waters edge in order that the hotel could have a private beach. The minor royal who had the rights wanted more than they were prepared to pay so eventually the building became a hospital. Hence this 1980's hotel-hospital has a huge lobby area leading into a domed atrium at the back. The latter has become an airy semi-circular coffee lounge overlooking the narrow garden that fills the gap between the two wings and the shore. As usual for a hospital the catering was not exciting. Two Fanta Lemon's, one reheated Pizza and a plastic container of Caesar Salad later, we returned to the waiting room to watch the telly and read the latest issue of Bahrain Confidential.

Eventually the results were back, the tests took longer than the promised hour but I wasn't complaining. Another chat with the doctor who photographed the rash on my arm with his mobile phone for his records and it was over to the pharmacy to collect a prescription from the cheerful pharmacist across the lobby - no forms to sign, no charges, presumably our Saudi card is paying for all this. Then the short trip home. All in all simple pleasant and so much quicker than a similar trip to the GPs surgery in the UK - no long waits on the phone trying to make an appointment, no return trip a week later to collect the results, no pharmacy charges and the staff were much more relaxed, smiling and happy to help. I'm a great fan of the NHS but there are somethings they could do better.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Strange What You Miss

Back in February we packed up our home by the Thames in Molesey dividing it into three piles; Bahrain, South Africa and Find-A-New-Home. actually there was a fourth which was Take-To-The-Dump but much to our delight it was very small as we managed to Freecycle a lot of stuff that didn't fit into the first two piles and several friends were happy to give some items new homes.

Four months later and it seems that the Bahrain shipment is finally arriving this week at the port, not that the actual shipping took that time. Its been a matter of paperwork and finding our way round it. You need a CPR (resident's permit) to import your personal effects and we still don't have ours but have eventually worked out that as with everything else here if you have a letter stating your employers are applying for one and a friend or colleague who has a CPR that will suffice. So our stuff left storage in Enfield and boarded the Manila Express at Tilbury last month. It was then taken to Jebel Ali Port, Dubai via various ports in Europe and the Suez canal. From there it is being transported to Bahrain (As an aside the life of a container is a fascinating one as this BBC project revealed: The Box).

So what have I wanted for? I thought clothes would be at the top of my list as Gulf Air has a luggage allowance of 30kg which is not a lot if you are moving country. Added to that my first few weeks were going to be a sailing trip (Kevin kindly packed my sailing bag in his suitcase) meaning I packed one suitcase with an assortment of shorts and t-shirts  for warm weather sailing, a lightweight set of oilies, sailing gloves, cotton sunhats, a cardie or two, three smock tops, a white blouse and a couple of dresses together with two pairs of linen trousers for tidy-wear plus what I was wearing to fly here. After four months there is some of this I haven't needed; the cardies, oilies and my light wind proof, fleece lined jacket, although I was glad of the latter on my return to the UK recently. As it turned out Bahrain's shopping malls filled in the gaps with a couple of longer sleeved loose smocks that didn't need a cami underneath, looser fitting t-shirts, another dress and a couple of long skirts which I prefer to clingy trousers or jeans in the heat.  Kevin has actually done his annual clothes shopping trip here, revamping his wardrobe with workshirts and casual trousers in an hour at M&S.

So though I'm looking forward to the rest of my wardrobe arriving, I haven't actually missed any single item, except perhaps my black linen trousers with pockets (I brought the pair that were pocketless). I've bought a pair of trainers and some gym clothes plus some additional swimwear to be able to take advantage of the facitlies here in the apartment block. And I'll admit to expanding my shoe collection a tad with two pairs of cheap flipflops, some strappy Clarks sandals for comfortable walking and a pair of flat peeptoe pumps to supplement the one pair of sandals, a pair of black flats which I've not worn since arriving, sheepskin slippers (why?) and my oh so comfortable Sebago sailing shoes which was all there was room for in my suitcase originally.

What I really miss is an eclectic mix of things. Almost every meal I cook I wish for a potato peeler that works, kitchen knives that stay sharp (and a decent knife sharpener) and sensible sized bowls rather than the tiny soup plates and rice bowls provided with the flat. I long for my jewellery making stuff (tools, beeds etc) as I keep having ideas for new projects but can't do anything but write them down, it's so frustrating (and I shipped my ideas notebook so I now have lots of scraps of paper with scribbled drawings on, as long as I haven't lost them). Perfume - I brought my favourite little travel bottle of L'Occitane Ambre and have succumbed to a couple of purchases of local oils but miss wearing Chanel no 19, I wonder how its faired in all the heat? But actually I miss little else!

And when the shipment eventually arrives on our doorstep - all 44 cartons of china, glass, ornaments, rugs, wind surfing gear, clarinet & recorders, bathroom storage, makeup, jewellery box, sewing basket, footwear, clothes, handbags and holdalls, pictures, towels, christmas decorations and stationary, books and the printer (this could be one item we needed but have managed without thanks to others' kindness), Kevin's trouser stand and my sewing machine - just where are we going to put it all?

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Potters Wheel

Yesterday we decided to do some cultural activities having got too hot aboard our little boat on Friday despite spending most of the day either in or on the water. Bahrain has plenty to do but you have to work hard to find it and I wonder if most visitors manage to see anything at all. Our choice for the morning was to track down the traditional potteries in A'Ali a small village close to Isa Town, south of Manama. Whether it was cooler than a day at sea was debateable as we'd woken up quite late and the sun was already approaching its zenith by the time we stepped out of the car in A'Ali.

Like many tourist destinations here the signage left something to be desired. Having passed our turning (Kevin spotted a sign off to our right at one round about on the edge of the village), we executed a U-turn and found that heading back towards A'Ali the brown heritage signs were plain for all to see. Obviously it had been assumed that sightseers would arrive from the direction of the Saudi Causeway and not from Manama via Isa Town. Behind a huge mound of broken earthenware topped by a supersized pot are the sheds where the various pottery companies do their work. There's plenty of parking in a nearby layby. Once out of the cocooning aircon of the car the heat hit us like opening the oven door and that was without the kilns! Was this a wise choice of activity for a June morning?

Kevin & I strolled along the dusty track from the entrance and amongst the tin and wood sheds; everything was a fairly uniform, earthenware colour, even the clothing of the few men we saw about. The first shed was open doored and appeared to be some sort of shop with shelves along all four sides inside. A group of guys were sitting on the floor in a corner drinking tea, probably glad to be out of the sun and proffered a few greetings as we reviewed the goods on offer. Mostly unglazed lamps, sheesha pipe bodies and safe pots (a money box) were on offer plus a few large plant pots, no prices, no hard sell.

In an adjacent shed we found a single potter hard a work, sitting in a pit with the floor as his work table. In front of him a spinning disc turned the clay, presumably somewhere out of sight in the pit his feet where propelling it. Rapidly and with practised ease he raised the clay into a bowl, created a stem below and cut the work off half way down the piece of clay. The completed goblet shaped bowl, too thick to be a drinking vessel joined ten or so others on a wooden board in front of him then he deftly shaped the remaining greyish clay into a second. His colleagues returned from their tea drinking in the adjacent shed and took up their places at their own wheels. Quickly the place was a hive of activity turning out a variety of shapes. Pottery has always fascinated, you start with an unpromising lump of sticky clay yet by co-ordinating squiggy material, wet hands and a turning wheel all sorts of useful or purely ornamental shapes can be formed. However its a real skill as I remember from art classes at school, it looks easy but isn't and these guys were turning out pot after pot identical in size with little or no waste.

Further down, in another shed we came across a man making the safe pots. A large lump of clay was lifted up to form a pillar a few inches across and a more than a foot tall. Then with his thumbs he gently started an indent, followed by his hand until his arm was elbow deep in the pillar of clay. The pillar was then gently raised upwards as by applying pressure he worked a bulging curve from the bottom outwards and then back in to seal the pot and finish off the top with a little finial or knob. The outsides were then tidied up with a wooden spatula and the pot joined a hoard of others ready for the slit to be cut, drying and firing

In a gap between a kiln and a potters shed stood dozens of similar safe pots, all just over a foot tall. In their midst a young man sat with minimal shade over his head as he applied sqiggly patterns of glaze followed by an all over coating of thin white slip. Pot after pot were painstakingly being decorated and in yet another shed we found fired pots ready for sale, few were glazed except some rather elegant planters with reddish brown rims and grainy golden sand bodys (from the colour of the sand it was definitely not local in origin). There were more proto-sheesha pipes with bodies awaiting the pipes and tubes as well as decoration. In the centre was a huge cut-work lantern six or eight feet tall - not certain quite what you would do with it though the smaller ones hung from the roof with their coloured electric bulbs could make nice table lamp presents for folk back at home. There were also thousands of safe pots with lurid pink, yellow or blue patterns on a white background, each one wrapped in a blue plastic carrier bag! Presumably they were for export as, unusually for Bahrain no one offered to sell us anything!

For a glimpse into a traditional craft not just of Bahrain but the world over a trip to the potteries of A'Ali make an interesting morning out, though I would recommend not making it in the Summer months. There is no fuss, no frills but you do get to see craftsmen working and the process of pot production close up.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Damp Dismal Britain Not

The day I arrived back at Heathrow it was warm and sunny but it didn't last. After a lovely Fun Day at Minima by mid-week it was unseasonly cold. The last weekend in May is a bank holiday and we planned a sail across the channel to France so the weather was predictably cold and windy. Despite everything, dressed correctly (there's no such thing as bad weather only wrong clothing) Joe, Kevin and myself had a great weekend sailing west through the Solent to Yarmouth and then on to Poole harbour and Swanage Bay. 
Sounds like a lot of indecision? Well yes the wind was not exactly as forecast. Having knocked a cross channel jaunt on the head we beat down the Solent to spend a pleasant night in Yarmouth moored safely against the harbour wall with a gale warning for the Wight area. In the morning it was a bit grey when we set off initially for Studland. Then as the wind changed we decided on Swanage Bay to the south of Studland only to have the wind veer as we approached in the early afternoon, Temptress altered course for Poole to look for a sheltered spot for the night. The Town Quay there was full due to a local regatta so we negotiated the shallow Wills Cut and dropped the hook instead off Pottery Pier on the North west side of Brownsea Island.

There we snoozed in the cockpit until, well you could say predictably, the wind started to blow hard across the water from the north. It was time to move as we wouldn't get any sleep anchored on a lee shore. Swanage Bay now looked a good option as we wouldn't be able to get out of any other deep water anchorage in the morning due to it being low tide then (we've run aground too many times to count in Poole). Out past the Sandbanks Ferry again, everyone else travelling in the opposite direction coming home from a day on the water.

Friends from our home marina on Musketeer were already anchored under the white cliffs of Ballard Down on the north side of the bay close by to the only other boat in the anchorage. It was too rolly with the left over swell from the previous day's gale to raft together so Temptress anchored close by. And it proved to continue through the night as well so what sleep we got was a little restless. Then yesterday under partially cloudy skies we headed back to Portsmouth with the wind once again forward of the beam but it was a cracking sail with the tide almost all the way. In through Hurst Narrows via the North Channel, threading our way through the starboard tackers, past Cowes and on up the Solent back to our berth. It might have been a tad colder than Bahrain but we had loads of fun on the water. Thanks guys for a great weekend.